One of the most intriguing aspects of the current political scenario involving Malcolm Smith is how few New Yorkers seemed to know much about him prior to his recent tangle with the law.
Of course, by now, anyone who had paid even the faintest attention to New York City news knows that Smith, a state senator from Queens and one of the highest-ranking African-American members of the state Legislature, was arrested recently for trying to buy his way onto the ballot as a Republican candidate for mayor of New York.
Smith, a longtime Democrat who was for a time the leader of his party in the state Senate, is accused of being part of a messy and tangled plot to win the Republican nomination by paying GOP leaders in various New York City boroughs to gain their permission to get a spot on their ballot. He is one of several elected and party officials to get arrested and to face charges of bribery and malfeasance. It is part of a full-blown scandal involving New York state elected officials that could rival a plot in any Hollywood movie in terms of its layers of intrigue and scheming.
In fact, in one incident, a state assemblyman from the South Bronx, Eric A. Stevenson, became the second notable African-American political figure to get highlighted for his role in an ignoble scandal. Stevenson was charged by federal prosecutors with taking more than $20,000 in bribes to help developers open adult day care centers in his district. At the same time, prosecutors say that Stevenson introduced legislation to prevent competing developers from building new centers for three years.
The Stevenson episode of the current political primetime scandal was unearthed by undercover recordings made by fellow Bronx Assemblyman Nelson Castro, prosecutors say. Castro has apparently led a double life of part-time legislator and part-time informant, helping to trap Stephenson and God knows who else in these sordid revelations.
So what does this drama reveal? What are the lessons here?
One revelation is just how deluded politicians can be about their appeal. Let’s face it, before this scandal, Smith’s name was hardly well known in most households in New York. There can be little doubt that if a dozen average African-American New Yorkers were asked for their opinion about Smith, fewer than three would have the slightest notion that he was an elected official from southeast Queens, let alone have any notion of what he stands for.
For the few who knew much about the pre-arrest Smith–and those few are confined to a tiny universe of the state’s political insiders–the senator is best known as the Democrat who joined forces in an unholy alliance with a few Republican state senators in Albany in a union called the “Bipartisan Governing Coalition.”
Among other things, that motley group ensured that Smith would have more money to run his office and a choice committee assignment. In so joining forces, Smith helped to ensure that Democrats would not take control of the Senate even after it appeared that his party had won a majority of the seats in the 2012 elections. But why should Smith care that he was turning his back on the voters and supporters who had placed him in office on the Democratic line?
Also, what was sorely missing from that agreement with the Republicans was anything that might remotely serve the interests of Smith’s working-class constituency in southeast Queens. The burning question here is, what on earth would make this man see himself as a viable candidate for mayor of New York? And on the Republican line?
In any event, chicanery and messiness is a longstanding feature of the behavior of people in all legislative bodies, but the folks in Albany seemed to have elevated them to an art form. What might well erode some of this political dirtiness would be a system of public financing of campaigns on the state level, similar to the system that is currently undertaken by candidates for public office in New York City. That would widen the number of people who could afford to run for office and, in doing so, open a door to candidates with higher ethical standards.
But the second solution–and this is a challenging one–is for people who run for public office to examine their motives in the first place. The citizens who officials like Smith and Stevenson represent need elected representatives who are passionate about providing jobs, greater access to health care and freedom from dehumanizing stops by New York City police officers.
As anyone who has read even a paragraph of the racial history of American politics knows, Black elected officials are destined to be highly scrutinized. These officials should have expected this and governed themselves by the needs of their constituents, rather than the desires of their pockets and egos.